The Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) broke the ice on Friday. They swept the Orix Buffaloes four games to three in the Japan Series to win their first championship in 38 years, since 1985. Hanshin finished third in the NPB Central League last year with a .489 winning percentage (68-71), 12 games behind first-place Yakult Swallows (80-59 – .576 winning percentage). This season was different. From the middle of the season, they broke out and won their first league title in 18 years by finishing first (85 wins, 53 losses, 0.616 winning percentage), 11.5 games ahead of second-place Hiroshima Toyo Carp.굿모닝토토
What’s different about the Hanshin of 2022 and the Hanshin of 2023? The biggest change is the head coach. In 2019, Akihiro Yano, who led the team for four years, stepped down and Akinobu Okada (66) took over. Okada is a legend in his own right, having been the team’s center fielder during Hanshin’s first Japan Series title run. He also served as Hanshin’s manager from 2004 to 2008. After leading the Orix from 2010 to 2012, he was sacked due to poor performance and returned to Hanshin after 15 years to take the helm of his hometown team.
There have been a few trades before and after Okada’s arrival, but no “gifts” like big free agent additions, and yet one of the keys to the team’s success this year has been its on-base percentage. While most metrics are similar year-over-year, including team batting average (0.243 to 0.247) and team ERA (2.67 to 2.66), the change in slugging percentage stands out. Last year, Hanshin tied for fifth in the Central League with the Junichi Dragons with a team OPS of 0.301, but this year they led the league with a 0.322 OPS. That’s 1.2 runs ahead of second-place Yakult.
Okada was a slugger who hit 247 home runs in his career. A power hitter, he was also an excellent baserunner. He had a career on-base percentage of .351. He knows the importance of getting on base, which is why he emphasized it to his players from spring training. The key was how the players responded. It’s not uncommon for new managers to have a honeymoon period where they go back to the drawing board. It’s easy to get comfortable with what you’re used to.
Okada consulted with the front office and adjusted the salary progression evaluation. Until last year, a hit was worth 1 on the salary cap, and a walk was worth 0.5. This year, the value was raised to 0.8, and walks in the late innings (7th through 9th) were valued at the same level as hits. “When we sign foreign players, we value walks and strikeouts highly in our options, but Japanese players don’t, so we thought it would be helpful to bring them up to the same level as foreign players to improve our batting average,” Okada said.
Okada also believes that patience in waiting for the right pitch will help hitters establish the strike zone. As of opening day this year, the average age of Hanshin’s roster was 25.7 years old.
The KBO has already seen two managerial changes in the offseason. The managers of the teams that didn’t make the postseason (PS) will have new policies in place to improve their performance. It’s hard to motivate players by simply chanting slogans, so the role of the front office is crucial. What we can learn from Hanshin’s victory